For the first time in five seasons, the Vancouver Canucks playoff hopes have been realized. A team has never been so happy to lose their first-round draft pick. But what else can be expected from such a strange season?
A lot of the Canucks’ most important players have no experience in the second season. Even captain Bo Horvat‘s last go-around was a brief visit in his rookie season. Officially, they still don’t. But in any practical sense, the Minnesota Wild was a baptism by fire that they sailed through. It was as much of a pressure cooker as any normal first-round year. Whoever lost went home, and in ever fewer losses. Five months of uncertainty and anticipation did nothing to ease the team into this playoff qualifier. And after a 3-0 loss in the series opener, the pressure was only that much greater.
Veterans Lead The Way (to the Penalty Box)
Players were brought in specifically for their veteran presence. Tanner Pearson, J.T. Miller, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Micheal Ferland, and Tyler Myers have all shown up in the last two years. A few had come even earlier – Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson. Nearly all of them disappointed in Game 1.
It was a clumsy, erratic start, far from what was hoped. None of the young players did particularly well, either, just to be fair. But less was expected of them for their first time. Pearson, especially, was singled out for criticism by fans and media alike for very shaky play. The Canucks tried playing the Wild’s game without knowing how. Attempts to break through the ‘home base’ defence by sheer force gained them nothing but a chance for Alex Stalock to talk their ears off. Attempts to ‘send messages’ to the Wild through physical play made them shorthanded and not much else. Shots were kept to the outside with little ability to set up in the offensive zone.
Vancouver’s skilled youth were effectively neutralized, and their veterans were easily outplayed. Changes obviously had to come, or it would be another year the Vancouver Canucks playoff hopes would be dashed. Like we predicted.
Change and Hope
Change they did. We go over the differences between Game 1 and Game 2 here. Fortunately for the Canucks, those changes weren’t for just one game. The biggest change was the much-maligned Pearson opening the scoring early, of course. But more than that, it was the emergence of the young players that swung the series and led the team to three straight wins.
Penalties continued to pile up, but now Vancouver was drawing as many as the Wild. They played a calmer, much more focused game. The next three games were what had been promised: exciting, talented youth punctuating the solid veteran play. One defensive pairing alone epitomized that Socratic ideal. Quinn Hughes took charge of the blue line, setting a team record for rookie defensemen in a single series with six points. Partner Chris Tanev closed out the series with a three-point night to go with his normal rock-steady play.
That was all through the forward lines as well. Elias Pettersson didn’t take over the series, but he did gain a hardness as the series progressed. He’s never easy to intimidate, but now he drives his checkers to distraction. In fact, it was Vancouver’s second line doing most of the damage as the Wild watched Pettersson.
The one playing disappointment – outside the obvious – was from an unexpected source. Regular-season MVP Jacob Markstrom, on whom the Vancouver Canucks playoff hopes would normally rest, wasn’t in his All-Star form for any game despite getting one shutout. Fortunately, the Canucks didn’t need him to be. The series-finale was easily his worst game, but his team bailed him out for the overtime win.
Now They Count
Vancouver played – and won – under wildly different circumstances. They lost two scoring threats in Tyler Toffoli and Adam Gaudette to injuries and still won. They played a literal rookie in Olli Juolevi on defence in Game 4 and still won. Neither their Calder-winning forward nor their MVP goalie stole games for them and they still won. They won the special teams battles and the five-on-five game.
The next team they play will be one that finished ahead of them in the playoffs, the Blues substantially so. But it will also be a team that has lost three games in a row. A recurring theme in this strange post-season is the ferocity of the play-in series. It’s being unmatched by the round-robin play, where coaches are experimenting with players and goalies. None of those top-four teams have faced elimination yet, and you have to wonder if they will be caught by surprise by the play-in winners.
Does momentum matter? Maybe not, but if experience does then one thing is certain. Whoever meets the Canucks won’t be facing the playoff rookies they would have seen in any other year.